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Broken Circles 

Wednesday, Sep 18 2002
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JEAN SMITH/CARLA BOZULICH, MECCA NORMAL, LUCID NATION at the Smell, September 14

Here's how deep Mecca Normal singer Jean Smith's faith in collaboration runs: Tonight's opening salvo was set up without advance meeting, much less rehearsal, between Smith and ex-Geraldine Fibber Carla Bozulich. (Lucid Nation's drummer sat in as well.) So the have-we-started-yet vibe was unsurprising, and the one song Bozulich prepared beforehand, sung to the tune of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?," left Smith twiddling her thumbs. Two improvised numbers -- one a Derek Bailey/ Tony Oxley-style game of tag, one vaguely Latin -- held together better, but when Smith muttered "change of scene" during the latter, it seemed a good diagnosis.

Mecca Normal proper, by contrast, were a model of concision. The Vancouver duo have been doing more with less -- just Smith's alien-being pipes and David Lester's guitar -- for 15 years, and it shows. This set was largely drawn from their excellent new The Family Swan, a harrowing collection about the horrors of, well, family. Smith's dad, in particular, sounds like a real hard-ass, throwing chocolate milk in her face in one song, insisting he has "no mind's eye" in another. Why isn't this just punk-as-therapy? Several reasons: Smith's lyrics have evolved from agitprop to detailed fictions, and Lester's playing remains crisp, even at its thrashiest. His stage manner is their rhythm section: He does a mean windmill, and raises and lowers his guitar at odd moments, as if he were playing along with different music entirely (maybe the jukebox conjunto seeping through from the adjoining bar).

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After this, Lucid Nation's drone (Patti Smith trapped in a practice room with Godspeed You Black Emperor) came off as inchoate, with a strong whiff of CalArts-ish "project" shtick. The Robert Plant-mopped guitarist's turn at the mike -- "I can't make you live if you want to die" -- was worth a chuckle, but otherwise, a real room clearer.

WORLD FESTIVAL OF SACRED MUSIC OPENING CONCERT at UCLA's Royce Hall, September 14

Duke Ellington said God understands any language you pray in, which is why Duke never strained his Concerts of Sacred Music into ethereal divinespeak; he just tapped the joy in his own soul and let it gush. As condensed by the Luckman Jazz Orchestra under the direction of James Newton, this meant episodes of unrestrained jungle strut and lush swing, strung together with testifying blues solos and capped with a fever-footed tap dance by a young disciple of the legendary Artie Bryant (who was in the house). It warmed the heart to witness the bearish Mr. Newton as he leaped off the podium toward his seasoned (but not jaded) players, shook the boards on landing and yanked enormous, dissonant stings from them. Sweating, panting, tux untucked, he slapped our faces with the message that jazz doesn't have to be Lincoln Center taxidermy; it can still live and writhe like the streets of your city. The only off moments came from the two vocal soloists, whose fine classical projection was incongruous in context. You can catch the orchestra's full program this Saturday (9/21) at Inglewood's Faithful Central Bible Church.

Prince Diabaté's throbbing, perking ensemble of West African flute, xylophone, drums and dance got the polite assemblage of Westside yogaphiles yelling. Draped like a Guinean pope, the charismatic Diabaté was the cock of the walk -- "This man has no self-esteem problems," said my wife -- even strolling the aisles in the spotlight à la Angus Young while plucking virtuosic arpeggios on his groin-nestled kora. Appropriately, the band showered their pop griot with paper currency, the one symbol held sacred the world over.

The evening's other hit was the Puerto Rican percussion ensemble of Cachete Maldonado, which managed to warm the chilly Royce environs a few degrees with Afro-Caribbean battery. Tibetan monks and nuns may have chanted, and Lakshmi Shankar (subbing for Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, detained in Pakistan) may have wailed austere classical pieces and devotional songs from the canon of India, but they didn't dilute the overall impression that what the spirits really dig is a good party. As L.A. Weekly founder Jay Levin was heard to remark, "It makes me happy, and that's sacred." (Greg Burk)

SWEARING AT MOTORISTS, SCOUT NIBLETT at Spaceland, September 10

What do you get when you cross a tattered baby doll from a dusty attic in Nottingham, a will-rock-for-drugs duo from Dayton, Ohio, and a comedian who wonders aloud if "we've entered the world of the threefold panda"? Answer: something like cabaret, and something completely strange. Nobody understood where the performers were coming from on this night, and that made for great theater. The intermission standup comic, Jason Traeger, described it as "stage art."

When Scout Niblett followed Traeger's odd humor to the stage, a brilliant juxtaposition took place. Niblett turned in one-two-three-chord chansons that cast a contemplative grayness over the room. She did her best to maintain her voice (which was hoarse from constant touring), often interrupting her own trance-inducing songs by laughing playfully as it cracked. Nevertheless, that voice cascaded through her sparse guitar arrangements like something altogether tragic. Midway through the set, Swearing at Motorists drummer Joseph Siwinski joined Niblett in a jarring rendition of Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine." Niblett herself then got behind the skins and played the tribal "Boy," which was like listening to an amplified heartbeat with somebody dreaming on top.

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